Networking

Peter Cochrane's Blog: My guide to finding wi-fi

If I can do it, you can do it...

Initial draft compiled in a coffee shop after clearing my overnight email via a commercial wi-fi service. Edited and emailed late the same day from Heathrow Terminal 2 via my ISP's wi-fi service

A few weeks ago I received a rather vitriolic email claiming that I had completely 'lost it'. This is not all that unusual by the way! I've received many similar emails and reader comments to my blogs. Apparently the reader in question could never find broadband access, and in particular wi-fi, and therefore doubted my reports, comments and actual usage claims.

Well, I responded with a statement of my personal experience, and then started a less than scientific study of actuality. So, for all those sceptics out there - here is my report and some recommendations about finding wi-fi.

Over the past six months or so I have taken particular note of my 'on the road' access habits and success rate. To a first approximation my connectivity is around 85 per cent by wi-fi and 15 per cent by wire LAN. At no time did I have to use a phone line or mobile phone link. Around 35 per cent of connections were free, whilst 60 per cent were via low-cost commercial services, and just five per cent were at 'rip-off' hotels and bars when I paid because I happened to be desperate to connect due to time constraints.

Now to put this into context... I respond to all emails within 12 hours 365 x 24 x 7, unless that is, I am on a long flight, or have had some tech failure. Also, my average file size tends to be higher than the average and often breaks the megabyte barrier. And finally, I do this no matter what the time, date, location or country.

So, to reaffirm my earlier reports and claims on the subject, I seldom find it difficult to get connected by wi-fi on the road. For more than 60 per cent of my wi-fi needs I find access wherever I happen to be in the UK and US within a city block or less. For about 35 per cent of the time I can get wi-fi within three city blocks or less. The remaining five per cent usually translates into a further city block or failed servers!

The big on the road problem is: how do you find wi-fi access points? So here is my personal guide:

  1. If you are really on the ball, check on the numerous websites that map the free and commercial wi-fi sites in all the towns and cities you are about to visit. I used to do this in the old days but I have grown lazy and now take potluck - and it seems to work!
  2. Download a software wi-fi scanner (there are a lot available on the web for PCs and Macs) so you can easily see what is available - commercial, free and barred access. By the way - look out for waiter/waitress/staff PDA cash systems in restaurants - they use wi-fi and can be very confusing!
  3. Buy a hardware (key-ring size) wi-fi scanner and attach it to the outside of your bag so you can conveniently take a quick RF sniff to determine a definite signal presence.
  4. Get a good deal for wi-fi roaming access with your fixed-line ISP, and make sure they have a lot of partners to access. I pay less than £6 per month for global access and seem to be able to get a high number of UK and overseas ISPs to give me access.
  5. Locate those hotels and hotel chains that provide wi-fi access for free - there are quite a few!
  6. Coffee shops are becoming universal points of access in most countries - and they are easy to locate.
  7. If you are in a strange city and you don't know where the coffee shops are, just look out for people carrying a cup of coffee and notice where they're coming from. In general you are within a block of a coffee, seat, table and wi-fi access.
  8. Never be shy in asking a stranger who is carrying a computer where they get wi-fi access.
  9. Never be shy in asking a stranger sat at a table using a computer if they are online and if not, where they go to get online.
  10. If you are travelling with someone else or a party, and the only access available is really expensive, learn how to turn your laptop into a server for everyone else. Then you can effectively divide the cost by N (the number of users) just like sharing a taxi!
  11. One unusual place to look for a wired and/or a wireless connection is the local library - sometimes I strike it lucky!

Finally, in response to your comments, I report on the world as I find and experience it, from the places where I live work and travel. If it doesn't line up with your experience, then see the above suggestions - I hope it all helps!

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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